Honoring Hollywood’s Historic Exiles

December 31st, 2008

Guest Blogger: Karen Thomas, filmmaker, Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler To Hollywood

When I first began working on Cinema’s Exiles, a film about the plight of German film artists who took refuge in Hollywood from Hitler’s reign, director William Wyler’s daughter Catherine, a friend of mine here in Washington, said “You must talk to my mother’s best friend, Lupita Kohner.” And so I did. I was so glad for that advice: Mrs. Kohner became a central character in our film. We had decided to tell this story in the first person, through the words and works of its principals, and it became clear that she was one of the principals.

Mrs. Kohner was born in Mexico, moved to Los Angeles and starred in silent pictures (as Lupita Tovar) beginning in 1929. In 1931 she was the lead in the Spanish language version of Dracula.
Lupita and her husband Paul, a producer at Universal, moved to Berlin in the early 1930s, when Paul Kohner became the Universal’s representative in Europe. Lupita Kohner saw Berlin in its glamour and gaiety, and witnessed Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. She saw Nazi brutality firsthand. After Hitler banished Jewish filmmakers from working in the German cinema, Kohner and her husband smuggled money across the frontier to Paris to filmmakers in exile. She was still in her early 20s. Sometimes she hid the money in her knitting; once she stashed it in a very large cold cream jar.

The Kohners were ultimately denounced for their activities. Crossing the border into Czechoslovakia on one occasion, they were nearly caught smuggling a large amount of cash. The Kohners never returned to Germany after that scare; they went home to Los Angeles. There, Paul and Lupita Kohner became founders of the European Film Fund, an extraordinary organization that provided arriving émigrés with money, food and shelter. Every exile working in Hollywood was asked to contribute 1% of their paycheck to the Fund. Mrs. Kohner, Charlotte Dieterle, Ernst Lubitsch and Henry Koster are among the many who worked to encourage participation in the Film Fund. On our film’s companion Web site you can see the list of 1941-1942 contributors and the amounts they gave, which range from $2 to $1300. Decades later, strangers introduced themselves to Lupita Kohner, and thanked her for her help.

Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler To Hollywood premieres on Thirteen Thursday, January 1 at 9:30 pm (ET). For broadcasts elsewhere, check local listings or reference pbs.org.